Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics: Don Black and Charles Hart
Director: Jonathan Kent
Despite Cinderella closing early, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most recent musical received lavish praise from the critics. And during lockdown, his Sunset Boulevard was brilliantly imagined in a daring online production by Leicester’s Curve Theatre. 2023 must have been seen as the perfect time for an ALW re-evaluation, but any rehabilitation of the ‘Dark Lord’s works has come to a juddering halt with this ill-judged revival of Aspects of Love.
Famous for one song, the musical first appeared in 1989, but it’s difficult to work out why this story of a complicated ménage à trois spread over 20 years should be revived rather than any other of his old musicals such as Whistle Down the Wind or The Woman in White. Aspects of Love lacks tunes. Other than the perennial favourite Love Changes Everything, the only other catchy song is Seeing Is Believing which swoons like a score from an old black-and-white film through most of the show. The other songs, and there are surprisingly few, are fairly anonymous.
However, the main problem is the story adapted from the 1955 novella by David Garnett. Its examination of sexual desire seems very unsuited for 21st audiences. The first half is solid enough. 17-year-old Alex persuades actress Rose to spend two weeks with him at his uncle’s villa overlooking the Pyrenees. Rose is smitten with the young American’s eager affection but when the uncle unexpectedly appears, she quickly switches allegiance and dumps poor Alex for his uncle George. However, two years later, when Alex returns to France as a G.I., Rose is tempted to continue her original affair.
These Bohemian attitudes extend further as George takes up with an Italian artist while Rose strings along Hugo when she returns to the Paris theatres. But it is in the second half when George and Rose’s daughter turns 18, and when other aspects of love are explored, that the show moves into uncomfortable territory. Without changing gear at all, the show depicts Alex’s desire for his cousin in a way that is disturbingly problematic in that it stems from both incest and paedophilia. Members of the audience visibly squirm in their seats.
Morals around consanguinity have certainly tightened since 1955, and indeed since the show’s premiere in 1989, and so the love between the cousins seems to be very wrong, as does George’s flirtatious dance with his daughter. Interestingly, the show doesn’t judge its characters and so it’s up to the audience to make sense of Alex’s behaviour, but without guidance from the lyrics and the music, it appears that the intention is that the audience should feel pity for Alex rather than recoil in horror. Nervous laughs from the audience suggest that director Jonathan Kent has miscalculated the tone of this revival.
While some may watch the final scenes through their fingers, at least the voices of all the performers are top-notch lending some class to the proceedings. As Alex, Jamie Bogyo is in excellent voice, and gives his character some depth, especially in the first half where Alex’s greenness is charming. Bogyo played the lead in Moulin Rouge! The Musical last year where he failed to find any chemistry with the rest of the cast, but here, in Aspects of Love, he shines.
In 1989 Michael Ball played Alex, but now, older, of course, he plays George, the affable and scatty uncle. Ball is consummately confident on stage, and when he sings Love Changes Everything, a song he took to number 2 in the charts at the end of the 80s, he resists giving a cheeky grin to the audience. Love Changes Everything catapulted Ball to stardom. It really is his song and he sings it as such.
The female performers deal well with Lloyd Webber’s traditional soprano registers although Laura Pitt-Pulford perhaps packs too much emotion into Rose’s last song. As Giulietta, the sculptor, Danielle de Niese has a lovely voice too but her song Hand Me the Wine and The Dice is as forgettable as her character. Making her West End debut, Anna Unwin is Jenny and her voice is as clear as crystal with none of the nasal tones that feature so much in modern musicals.
In a show that moves from France to Italy and back again most of the scenery is wheeled on behind screens that show films of Venetian gondolas or pigeons. Initially, it’s a nice touch but the effect is repeated too many times. Better are John Macfarlane’s designs that depict circus audiences or French landscapes as early Impressionist paintings. These striking pictures give more substance to the show than it probably deserves.
Runs until 11 November 2023